Concentrating Solar Projects Falling By Wayside

Enjoy the hoopla about concentrating solar plants in the U.S. when it comes later this year. You might not be hearing much about the technology for several years afterward.

As KCET ReWire’s Chris Clarke reported, BrightSource Energy last week pulled the plug on the Rio Mesa Solar Electric Generating System it had hoped to build in Riverside County, Calif.

Ivanpah is one of four big CSP projects expected to go online this year, but then the pipeline dries up. (image via BrightSource Energy)

Ivanpah is one of four big CSP projects expected to go online this year, but then the pipeline dries up. (image via BrightSource Energy)

Once envisioned as three 250-megawatt, 750-foot-tall towers, Rio Mesa was subsequently scaled down to two towers. Then put on hold. Now, the company has withdrawn its application with the California Energy Commission to certify the project.

That leaves a dwindling number of big CSP projects in the pipeline – a situation that contrasts starkly with solar PV.

In the first quarter of 2013, 24 utility PV projects, ranging in size from 1 MW to 79 MW, were completed in the United States, and not just in the usual spots like California and Arizona. According to the U.S. Solar Market Insights report from GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association, plants were also commissioned in North Carolina, Hawaii, Vermont, Minnesota, New Jersey and Ohio. And: “(T)he pipeline of utility projects with power purchase agreements (PPAs) signed but which are not yet in operation rose to 10.7 GW, of which 3.9 GW are already in construction,” the report said.

But for concentrating solar – this is the technology in which mirrors are used to focus sunlight to create heat that can be used to produce electricity – things are not so rosy.

Two trough and two power-tower projects, totaling 800 megawatts of generating capacity, are expected to come online in the United States this year. But after this burst of activity, the only firm project on the horizon afterward is SolarReserve’s Rice Solar Energy.

The frustrating thing is, there’s a lot to like about concentrating solar power, as was explored in a big Center for American Progress piece and related paper we shared recently. As the paper noted, “Concentrating solar power, unlike standard solar photovoltaic technology, stores heat rather than electricity, making storage using CSP technology potentially much cheaper and more effective than solar photovoltaic, or PV, technology.”

Yet these day in the U.S., projects seem more likely to be cancelled than to be newly announced. Among the biggest problems: cost, which looks increasingly unattractive in comparison to ever-cheaper PV. Also, CSP developers seem to have run into more challenges with both transmission and environmental conflicts than PV projects.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.